Two metres apart

The assassination of Julius Caesar in a 15th-century French chronicle. The conspirators are wearing PPE, but Caesar is completely exposed (Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale, 1137)

Social distancing measures are in place pretty much everywhere. They have been instituted to reduce the possibility of infection. No contact, no contagion. If we don’t share the same space, we won’t get infected. We won’t get assassinated either.

It may be argued that the 2-metre rule could have saved Julius Caesar’s life. Since March 2020 will go down in history as the month Covid came to town, let’s turn to March 44 BCE, the 15th to be more precise, when the daggers came to town.

Everyone knows the story. As he walked into the Theatre of Pompey where the Senate was assembled, Caesar was approached by a group of conspirators who stabbed him to death. It is not clear how the events unfolded, but it is likely that Caesar, who had recently been appointed dictator in perpetuity, was initially petitioned by one of the conspiring senators about a personal matter. The other conspirators closed in on him, who thought they were simply showing their support for their fellow senator. Caesar is said to have pushed the petitioner away, but this one grabbed him by the toga. Caesar managed to stop the first dagger, but 23 more rained down fatally on him.

We may wonder what would have happened if Caesar had followed our social distancing measures. The face mask wouldn’t have been of much use, but the 2-metre rule could have saved his life. And the anti-republican pandemic, as the conspirators claimed, would have ravaged the Roman state. It is a facetious thought, but not entirely so. Variants of the 2-metre rule were a feature of autocratic regimes throughout history, protecting apprehensive rulers from contact with doubtful individuals. Many kings, emperors, dictators followed the rule to the letter. Of course, it wasn’t so much the risk of viral infection than that of assassination that they were trying to mitigate.

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